Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Robert ‘Butch’ Paula
by Steve Sparks, March 24, 2010
I drove down to The Floodgate Store a couple of miles south of Navarro and pulled up the driveway behind to the home of Butch and Buffy Paula. They gave me a delicious cup of coffee from a French Press along with a wonderful antipasto platter of cheeses, salami, and fruit, and we sat down to talk.
Butch was born in 1945 in Petaluma, California, the third child to Bill Paula and Bobbie Bentley (and much later, Peterson). His father’s side had come over from Portugal a few generations earlier while his mother’s side was Irish/English, his maternal grandfather, Rufus Bentley, settling in Cloverdale where he was the town blacksmith. Butch has an older brother and sister, John and Christy, and a younger brother, Jim, who died tragically at the age of twenty-six. The four of them were each born two years apart. “My older brother John and I did not get along very well and then my younger brother always did what John said so I sometimes clashed with him too. Nothing serious, just sibling stuff.”
Butch grew up in rural Petaluma in Sonoma County, northern California, on the family dairy farm about six miles out of town (“it was always a treat to go into Petaluma and visit my grandmother”) and attended nearby Liberty Elementary and later Kenilworth Junior High and Petaluma High. ‘I was not a good student. I had no time for school and just did not like it, not that I was a bad kid. I had my chores at the dairy in the morning, then got cleaned up, went to school, and then came home and did more chores. I sometimes did get into trouble but my Dad had always said that we could raise hell at the right times as long as it didn’t cost anyone any money or lead to any damage to somebody’s else’s property. I tried to follow that advice... What time I did have for myself was spent with motor scooters and later hot rod cars. I got my first car when I was thirteen — a ’48 Plymouth four-door sedan. I couldn’t drive it so my cousin Ralph did and we entered the demolition derbies with it. Then later I got a ’29 Chrysler which has now been in storage in Cotati for thirty five years and after that a ’56 Chevy, a really nice car that I should have kept but sold when I was drafted.”
When he was thirteen, Butch’s family sold the dairy and moved into town, where his father worked for a tractor company and later as a janitor in the school system. Butch enjoyed sports at school but never gave significant time to playing them and preferred to work with the cars, although he did hang out with the players socially. “I was short and stocky. They called me ‘The Roundman’. My Dad had been a varsity football player and a champion wrestler at school and college but I never followed in his footsteps in that way. I was also called ‘Little Red Shorts’ because I insisted on wearing red shorts even though the school colors were blue shorts. Eventually my parents were called to the school and I had to change but it had caused quite a stir and I got the nickname.”
In 1963, with Butch just two weeks away from graduation, he quit school following a conflict with a teacher. “My mother was so upset. She had already sent out graduation invites. I went to the high school evening classes instead and graduated a few weeks later. I was a little belligerent at school, I guess. Anyway, I did not want to go to college and wanted to be a truck driver with the Teamsters Union — a strong union. A friend said he could get me a truck-driving job if I started out at his family’s chicken processing plant in the icebox. I did that for a short time, initially joining the butchers union, then went to the Teamsters when I moved on to the loading bay and eventually I was driving the trucks on local deliveries. I had always liked trucks and had learned to drive at a very young age, plus it was a well-paid job and I did that for a couple of years, during which time I also started to really grow and was 6’ 1” by 1965.”
Butch knew he was going to get drafted so he tried to sign up with the navy reserves but was turned away because of his driving record. He had had his license suspended for racing. Instead he was given the choice to be drafted by either the army or marines. “I had been told that being in the marines was a lot tougher and I wasn’t in it to be a hero so I signed up for six years in the army — two years service, two on active reserve, and two on inactive reserve. I thought it was all a bit of a joke but after joining on December 1st, 1965, I soon found out that it wasn’t.”
Along with thousands of other recruits, Butch found himself at Fort Ord. “We arrived by bus and when the bus door opened we were met by a drill instructor who told us all a few things about being in the service before shouting ‘you have one minute to de-ass this bus and thirty seconds have gone already.’ Most people rushed off but I walked nonchalantly off to be met with an ass-kicking from the instructor who added, ‘Bad time (time spent in the brig for ill-disciplined) does not count against your service time.’ I was suddenly very scared and decided to change my attitude to all of this; I didn’t want any ‘bad time’.”
Butch was in training at Fort Lewis for over ten months before being sent to Vietnam by ship with the 4th Infantry Division. “Most people’s experience of Vietnam involved being moved from place to place in small groups, replacing other soldiers. Mine was different in that the 4th was kept together as much as possible. We had trained and lived together for a long time and had become closer to a larger number of fellow soldiers than most. This was real good in some ways and real bad in others — you had known fellow soldiers for a significant time, but it meant you also knew virtually everyone who was killed around you.”
Butch arrived in Cam Ranh Bay and was then sent to Tuy Hoa beach on the China Sea where the Air Force was building a huge base. “The infantry had to patrol the perimeter but it was a pretty safe place where we suffered very few losses. Being the mail clerk, I was even better off than most and had it made there for a few months. I turned 21 while I was there and, with every soldier given two beers a day, a few of the guys gave me their ration on my birthday. I was so drunk and sick the next morning — the beer was very nasty, having been cooled and warmed a few times on the journey getting to us.”
In the summer of 1966, Butch and his company were moved to Pleiku in the Central Highlands to join the rest of the division. ‘We were helicoptered in during the day and a few hours later we found out that suddenly we had found ourselves in a full combat zone. We went on search and destroy missions to clear out villages virtually every day and also every other night, as a radio telephone operator, I was needed to go out on patrol into the bush. That was tough, the radio and batteries weighed an extra thirty-three pounds on my back. Some days we took hours to go through a short patch of jungle, it was so thick. Then they would use Agent Orange, the defoliant, and that stuff was incredible. Three days after spraying, the trees would have no leaves at all and you could see everything. Unfortunately that stuff landed on us; you could feel it like the water spray when you run through a sprinkler watering the grass. The repercussions were not known until much later.”
“Sometimes, that far in-country, we would go days without getting supplies and then when it arrived it would be twelve meals and too heavy to carry so we would throw half of it away, destroying it first so the enemy wouldn’t get it. Having said that it was mostly terrible food — in the early days it was food that had been in tins since the end of the Second World War. Then we started to get Long Range Patrol Rations and they were great in comparison. Other than food we were given toilet paper, chewing gum, a few cigarettes and matches, and some hot sauce, which often made the food edible. The only decent thing was the pound cake. The worst was the ham and eggs in a tin — that was ugly and I couldn’t eat it no matter how hungry I got.”
“There were so many young guys there. I was 21 but most were younger than me. The 1st Lieutenant in charge, Lt. Johnson, was a year younger than me — a great guy. One day our platoon was moving up a hill attempting to join the rest of the company and unbeknown to us we walked right through the middle of a Vietcong camp. We had no idea — they were masters at camouflage, and they let us go through them. As I was the radio guy I was always in the middle of the group near the officer in charge, in this case Captain Powers, who commented that he assumed we would have come across the enemy by now. It was about 8am when he told us to take a break and, standing in the only shaft of sunlight in the middle of the overgrown jungle, he was re-checking his compass and map when a sniper in a tree fired off two shots, killing him instantly. Then all hell broke loose. Over the next seven hours or so we were involved in a very intense battle. Our company started with 108 men and 27 were killed, including Lt. Johnson, with 44 wounded — it was the worst battle I was involved in. At one point the artillery guy we had with us shouted that he needed a radio guy to get over to him and send in the request for artillery support. I made my way to him and we were under heavy fire as he told me the co-ordinates where he wanted the incoming to hit. I thought his reading of the map was wrong and that the fire power he requested was going to hit us but he said, ‘If the artillery doesn’t get us then they will.’ The Vietcong could now be seen approaching. It turned out he was a heck of a map-reader and knew the terrain really well because seconds later the bombs arrived right on target, although they were still very close to us. The battle waged all day and we had a hard time getting the injured out because of the dense jungle. I was hit in the right arm but it was not too bad and I was one of the last out around 4pm. They later estimated that about five hundred Vietcong were killed that day, including a Chinese advisor. It was also the first time in the war that Chinese weapons (40 mm rockets) were found in the possession of the Vietcong, although this had been suspected for some time.”
As Butch had suffered no broken bones he was not sent home. He recuperated at a hospital in-country and it was a time for reflection. “The Vietcong were incredible fighters with lots of good equipment. One thing they didn’t have was air power and you always knew when you heard approaching airplanes and helicopters that they were ours. They were no different to us in many ways — all young; many dead. They didn’t want to be there anymore than we did. The war was not un-winnable though, but too many people were making money off it and there was no way to win it fighting in a traditional way as too many civilians get killed, like in recent times in Iraq. The only way I kept going was because I was told we were there to help people lead a free life like we had and to stop the spread of communism.”
Butch was in hospital for 31 days and returned to the 4th Division’s camp where he was assigned to talk to the new recruits when they arrived. He and another soldier had been in Vietnam for seven months, in the bush without any R&R, so they went to see the Inspecting General who immediately granted them seven days leave with a flight out the next day to Singapore. “Despite sending most of my wages home, I had quite a bit of money saved up but I spent it all having a great time.”
On their return he was again assigned to help with the new recruits. “There were lots of them by this time and they were very inexperienced. For example, some were lighting up cigarettes on the perimeter in the middle of the night for all to see — they were going to get themselves and us killed. Many officers were also inexperienced and only knew what was in the books, so the recruits listened and learned from us. It was rewarding to share our experience and may be give them a chance of staying alive... I still went out on patrols but we were in a relatively secure area by this time.”
In November 1966, Butch returned to Fort Lewis in Washington and was met there by his parents. “My Mom couldn’t recognize me as I’d lost so much weight. I went from well over 200 pounds to 175. We had a steak dinner with other soldiers and their families and at 1pm the next day I was discharged. I did not have to sign on with the reserves and we drove back home. I was alive and out of the army.”
Less than two weeks later Butch was back at work, driving the delivery truck for the chicken factory. “I did think about taking a motorbike ride for a fishing trip but it didn’t happen. I knew I didn’t want to talk about my experiences and didn’t do so for about twenty years, apart from at the couple of reunions I attended. I was to spend many years self-medicating with alcohol and hating the government for what they’d done. I had very bad experiences with the Veterans Administrations in the early days. The medical system they operated was so bad for a time and we were treated like dogs, although it is very good these days and we have top care and are treated with respect. I am totally satisfied now.”
In the late 60s Butch drove a truck for a produce company for several years and was married to Cathy in 1970. They had two children, Brian and Robin, who was born with four separate birth defects as a result of Butch’s exposure to Agent Orange. “The government have never stepped up to the plate on that, and probably never will, but that stuff was very bad and the effects were very serious.”
Going back 30 years, back in the early 40s, Butch’s father Bill became ill with Multiple Sclerosis the family heard of a woman in Anderson Valley by the name of Claudina Pinoli who was a unofficial/unqualified doctor of sorts who had been achieving some amazing results. They came to the Valley to see her, and rented a cabin at Van Zandt’s and later camped at Dimmick State Park. Eventually Bill Paula recovered and Claudina continued to be great friends with the family, always making the kids feel special and giving them a little ‘treatment’ for their aches and pains. His mother had become pregnant with her third child during the time when they were up here so Claudina always called Butch her ‘Anderson Valley Boy’ and she actually fixed Butch’s crippled foot that had been deemed untreatable by other doctors.
With these past links to the Valley, Butch decided to move here in 1974. “I had said as a child that I wanted to own the Navarro Store and Claudina had always told me that the Floodgate Store would be a better idea. I was drinking a lot and one day at about 9am I went into the Floodgate for a beer — it was a beer bar and store then — and asked the owners Sam and Marguerite Avery if they wanted to sell the store. I had long hair and a very long beard and they weren’t interested. I really wanted it and cut my hair and beard but it wasn’t until I put my house on the market that we solved the problem and in 1976 we traded homes — they moved to Petaluma and I moved a trailer on to the land and took over the store and saw shop next door.”
The Floodgate was a very busy place with a general store and the saw shop both very popular withy the logging community, plus many of those working on the development of Rancho Navarro and Holmes Ranch Road. “Cathy worked the store and the eight-stool bar with help from my mother and Nancy Gowan. We had gas pumps, a pay phone, a television, and nice fireplace and we became a major meeting place with lots of business discussed and bullshit spoken. To survive I had to work nearly every day for the first two years. I was still drinking and my move away from Petaluma and my crazy buddies down there did not stop me from doing that, as I thought it might — you don’t buy a bar to sober up and I had found another crew to drink with.”
In 1980, Butch and Cathy split up and Butch was in a fog for the next four years. Then one of the customers, Buffy, caught his eye. “I knew from day one that she wanted me,” he says with a loud laugh. (Buffy, who was present during the interview at this time, replied, ‘I don’t think so — I was the new blond in town and you wanted me!”). They began dating and in 1985 were married. She moved in with Butch and the two kids to the house he had bought in Navarro. “She fell in love with the kids and they felt the same. Apart from my mother, Bufffy was the first real stable influence in their lives and then we had a son, John in 1991. I give credit for everything my kids achieve to Buffy.”
On Halloween 1987, Butch was on one of his drinking binges. “I was with some buddies in Santa Rosa and I ended up in the drunk tank. I really thought about things and realized that all my problems were as a result of the bottle. I decided I had to stop and that decision probably saved my life.” He has not drunk alcohol since.
In the mid-eighties, they leased the Floodgate Store to Jerry and Kathy Cox, who later took Johnnie Schmitt on as partner and turned it into a fine restaurant, while the saw shop business was sold to Roy Laird, who continued to lease the space. Butch then returned to a job with the Teamsters Union at Shamrock Cement and Building Supplies in Cloverdale and did that commute for a couple of years at which time he bought his own water haulage truck and began to work for himself, moving water from place to place, compacting the dirt on construction jobs, and working on fires whenever necessary. And that is what he has done to this day.
Apart from when he is working, Butch loves to work on his tractor on the never-ending projects around the property and he and Buffy are getting to the point when they can think about retirement. They continue to spend a lot of time watching son John, now an accomplished academic senior at the high school, play his sports — basketball, tennis, and soccer. Butch’s first two children both graduated from AV High and son Brian is now in Redway with wife Cinnamon and four children whom Butch likes to visit regularly, while daughter Robin is in good health and is generally self-sufficient in Ukiah, receiving advise and guidance from a case officer. “The authorities have tried to shut me up over the years but I strongly believe that Robin’s problems were due to my exposure to Agent Orange. At 19 and in battle you don’t question what stuff is coming out of your own planes and I can still vividly remember that stuff falling on us like a very light rain. As I said earlier, the government cannot fess up. It would break them financially.”
I asked Butch for his thoughts on a few of the issues confronting Valley dwellers these days.
The wineries and their impact? — “They’re here to stay I think and they obviously create jobs, but I have to ask whether we have enough at this point. Most of them keep their properties really well and I like that. I’d rather see cows and sheep but I’m told the wines produced here are very good. Having said that, it seems they should kick down more for the Valley — a little extra tax on each bottle that goes exclusively to this Valley. That money could be put towards any number of things, perhaps public restrooms for their customers. Most of the wineries do huge business here and to give some back directly to the Valley would be good. The biggest issue is water of course and the current state of the River Navarro is sad to me.”
The AV school system? “I’ll take the Fifth on that one! I believe it needs a major overhaul but then all schools seem to be struggling and perhaps ours is no worse than others. Let’s just say I’m glad John will be at college next year.”
The AVA? “We buy it every week and enjoy it, particularly the Valley stuff. Bruce is Bruce and he likes to stir the pot but that’s fine with me.”
Law and order in the Valley? “They are doing a better job these days. They need to concentrate on the big fish and bust the guys working the methamphetamine labs and not the single mother driving without a seatbelt. The courts in Ukiah are screwed up. Deputy Keith Squires will tell you he can take the bad guys over the hill but they’ll be back in the Valley before him!”
I posed a few questions from a questionnaire featured on TV’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “My family — kids and grandchildren.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “My lack of memory. That brings me down a lot.”
Sound or noise you love? “When my grandchildren call me ‘Papa’.”
Sound or noise you hate? “Squealing brakes down on Hwy 128 by the Floodgate Store.”
Favorite food or meal? “I love to eat most things. My favorite? Well, whether it’s St. Patrick’s or not, I do love Buffy’s corned beef and cabbage with roasted potatoes and carrots. I could eat it every night.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one, who would that person be? “President Obama or Bill Clinton. May be Sandra Bullock (‘Your girlfriend,’ teased Buffy) Or even Elvis.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “My boat, my fishing gear, and my tractor.”
Favorite hobby? “Boating and camping.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “It would have been cool to have been a rock star.”
Profession you’d not like to do? “Anything inside; an office worker.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “When I met Buffy.”
The saddest? “When my little brother died.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I was able to conquer my vices that were taking me down. That I served my country and am a proud veteran. That I can be proud of my kids.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I just hope I can get there. If I do, hopefully he’d say, “You’ve been a good person, Butch. Welcome.”
(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Via Keller.)